Surely by now you’ve seen those photos of the guys who dressed as Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman for Halloween. The photos, which have been shared across the internet, are totally offensive. Straight-up racist. Not funny.
The good news is that, best as I can tell, those are basically the only assholes who chose that costume. Presumably there were a few more who didn’t make it onto the internet, but if it was an even-remotely popular choice we would have seen way more tweets, Facebook statuses, and blog posts about it. In fact, the only reason you saw these fuckheads—unless you follow random, non-media, non-famous Americans on twitter—is because their images were posted on countless websites, alongside, essentially “LOOK AT THIS RACIST THING!”
Which, again, yes, yes the dudes in these costumes were being totally racist. Dressing like a teenager who was murdered for being black is offensive, not just to his family and to black people but also to people who are anti-murder and to anyone who is not an objectively terrible person. Trayvon Martin is not a joke. So, having established that this costume is offensive, that sort of implies that it causes hurt to the offended. In posting some random shithead’s photo to a top-tier website, are people not magnifying the number of people hurt exponentially? Instead of being seen by however many people follow this guy on twitter—hundreds, or maybe thousands—it’s been seen by millions.
You’re being unfair, the people who posted this photo to their websites, would say. By posting this photo, we’ve shamed the racists. We’ve raised awareness about racism. This is true, but what does this really achieve? First off: I’d like to think that even the most South Park-misinterpreting, I’m-not-racist-because-I-hate-everyone-equally moron would realize that a Trayvon Martin costume is definitely not acceptable. It’s important that we address the ever-present racism that haunts our society, but I don’t think that going after the absolutely most idiotic instances is really the most effective way to do so. A better use of our time would see us talking about things like system discrimination, institutional biases, and a lack of basic social services in poor and minority communities.
A more cynical person would suggest that these people are posting this photo in order to (at best) gain easy progressive cred, or (at worst) to essentially make money (by getting page views) off the back of racism. In fact, there exists a whole cottage industry of people who regularly post instances of racism (mostly racism done by low-profile teens with dozens of social media followers). A more accurate person might suggest that we’re using these instances to laugh (at the racist, in an “oh my god you’re such an idiot” kind of way) at the very thing we’re pretending to be shocked by, and that we’re so used to seeing stuff like this that we’re actually not offended so much as “offended.”
In all honesty, I don’t think that the people who are posting these things are consciously profiting off racism, or that they have anything but the best of intentions. Really. I think that they think they’re doing a service—that they’re spreading awareness of racism. Ultimately, then, posts remind me of another awareness campaign: Breast Cancer Awareness. Its pink ribbons are ever-present, despite increasing criticism of the industry behind it. Though the people buying pink-topped yogurt surely mean well, there’s been a huge number of recent studies showing that awareness campaigns don’t do much besides make a few CEOs a lot of money, and (I suppose) make sure that people know about cancer. Which is to say: Increasingly high-profile campaigns haven’t done much to solve cancer. I can’t help but feel like these racism awareness blog posts have the same effect with regard to racism. I feel like the people who are reading and sharing these posts are already conscious of the huge amounts of racism present in American life, and the people writing racist things on Twitter will just go on reading 9gag or whatever.
That said, if it was up to me, I don’t really know if I’d just eliminate this genre of blog posts. For one thing, I know how well they do, traffic-wise. A few tossed-off gimmicky posts might pay for a great bit of journalism. A spoonful of sugar, etc. Beyond that, there’s obviously tons of well-written, highly-researched stuff online about racism, and I know that it’s generally way less popular than fucked-up tweets. It’s better to have a bunch of people reading a stupid blog post about offensive teens than no one reading a research paper about institutional racism, right?
I guess what I’m saying is that I don’t know what the right thing to do is, but I can’t help but feel that having a TweetDeck column for “Trayvon Martin Halloween” isn’t it.